Brother and sister Viola and Sebastian, who are not only very close but look a great deal alike, are in a shipwreck, and both think the other dead. When she lands in a foreign country, Viola dresses as her brother and adopts the name Cesario, becoming a trusted friend and confidante to the Count Orsino.
Twelfth Night is counted as one of Shakespeares most perfect comedies but it is much more than a wheeze of cross-dressing confusions and thigh-slapping burlesque. After running the Royal Shakespeare Company for 20 years Trevor Nunn knows his Bard, and his lyrical, pre-Raphaelite dressed film plays on all the poignant and melancholy notes. Its a dark interpretation that connoisseurs will relish, although it will prove a hard sell to those anticipating a Tootsie in tights.
Shipwrecked in Illyria, in danger and believing her twin brother Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) has drowned, plucky Viola (Stubbs) disguises herself as a boy and joins the court of Orsino (Toby Stephens), with whom she falls in love. Viola is dispatched to press Orsinos suit to the noble lady Olivia (Carter), who isnt interested in Orsino but instead flips for the young go-between.
While this trio passionately throw themselves into being in love with love, Sebastian is alive and running around being mistaken for his twin (an illusion surprisingly well put over) and Olivias household is embroiled in a power struggle. Pompous steward Malvolio (Hawthorne) has ideas above his station. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant, a particular hoot) and the maid with an agenda, Maria (a clever Imelda Staunton) plot his comeuppance with a scheme both hilarious and horribly cruel. And Olivias so-called Fool, Feste (Ben Kingsley) roves among them all, shrewdly observing and commenting.
The autumnal, wistful tone is emphasised by the savvy ensembles playing: the younger contingent are intensely, painfully adolescent in their misunderstanding; the ageing drunkard faction are bitterly and maliciously absurd. Not a laugh riot, then, but nevertheless fascinating in its sophisticated completeness.
Bold and intricate, one of the better Shakespeare adaptations.